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Meet QL AG – a ‘Blue Horizon inspired’ startup

Blue Horizon sat down with Esther Pfister, CEO of QL AG, based in Zurich Switzerland, to talk about the goals of the company, the challenges ahead and what we can do to address them. QL AG is a very young startup, only having been incorporated at the beginning of this year. The team around Esther focuses on the exciting space of using precision fermentation to produce dairy proteins that are animal-free, biologically identical, and pure to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems to feed the world sustainably.

QL AG is a brand new company which you and your team started at the beginning of this year. What problem are you trying to address and solve?

So, if we can remove the cow from the equation, we can massively reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. And we can do that by using precision fermentation to create dairy proteins.

How does your precision fermentation technology work?

Precision fermentation is based on the century-old tradition of fermentation, like fermenting yeast to brew beer. We at QL also use a yeast to do the magic: We take the DNA of a mammal that is responsible for the milk production and insert it into a yeast, a microorganism. Then we let this microorganism be the motor of our microscopic milk factory: The yeast replicates and secretes the protein that is biologically 100% identical to the one from the animal. Just that no living animal was involved in the production process!

It sounds freaky, I know, but hey: it’s 2022, and that’s where you can get with using modern biotechnology!

Who will be the main customers of your products?

We will produce a dairy protein powder that can be used for many applications in the industry. But our first customers will be food companies that produce reconstituted milk products.

We also know that our food industry customers have a variety of different special needs for using our proteins in their brands, we will test the technical functionalities of our product through research partnerships with a University of Applied Science from the beginning. Therefore, we will ensure the right behavior during formulation, and learn how it interferes with other ingredients, – and of course as well how it tastes!

Can you tell us a bit more about your background? How did you become CEO of QL AG?

As so often it was a combination of “I knew someone who knew someone” with being at the right place at the right moment. But ultimately what convinced me to join QL is the enormous experience, backgrounds, network and commitment of the founder team, the superior research technology we have access to which is “one million times faster” and the opportunity to contribute something relevant to one of the world’s most pressing problems.

I‘m glad that I can leverage everything in my professional backpack for this endeavor: my management experience at a large retailer, strategy consulting and my own previous start-up experience. And I’m glad the topic is complex: Mathematicians like me like to solve new problems every day!

“One million times faster” in research – that sounds impressive! Can you tell us more about your research approach?

Sure! So, as you certainly know, biotechnological research involves putting microorganisms one by one in well plates to find out which ones that are the best ones. This can be automated to a certain degree by letting robots do the pipetting, but still: it’s very small-scale. Two of our founders have developed a new technology for this which we use for our research: the Nanoliter Reactor. With this technology, you can analyze one million sample of microorganisms “at once” – rather than one by one. This speeds-up our research enormously!

QL CEO Esther Pfister holding an Erlenmeyer beaker with 1 Mio. Nanolitre Reactors – the key to speeding up their research “one million time”.

Ok, interesting, but how does this work with the Nanoliter Reactors?

Our superior research process uses two expensive pieces of technical equipment: an Encapsulator and a COPAS (Complex Object and Particle Analyzer and Sorter). When we have our samples of microorganisms we want to analyze, we first use the Encapsulator to make beads in a way that exactly one microorganism lives in each bead. These little beads are the Nanoliter Reactors. Like a tiny little Bioreactor for one single microorganism. The microorganism grows inside this bead and can then be analyzed with the COPAS: This machine linearizes the one million samples and analyzes and sorts them. After this analysis, we can tell exactly which one microorganism out of the one million sample is the best performing, and we can pick out and continue our research with it.

By the way: The way the microorganism grows in our nanoliter reactor is much closer to the conditions in a commercial bioreactor than the cultivation in well plates. Therefore, the results of our lab research will be applicable more directly to large scale production conditions.

How did the idea to found QL AG come about?

Well, that’s a little bit of a funny story because QL was founded by some Ex-McKinsey people (including me!)  and their friends who have read the Report on Protein Transformation by Blue Horizon and BCG. I think there is always an eternal competition between those two top consulting firms, but nevertheless: the McKinsey people believe in the huge opportunity that lies in alternative proteins and together with the excellent biotechnologists as part of the founders team it was quickly clear that we would go for that opportunity!

So, one could almost say, that QL is a ‘Blue Horizon inspired startup’! Thanks for this!

What do you see as the biggest challenge for your future success and what kind of partners do you need to overcome this challenge?

We have probably similar challenges as other startups in this field, which is first and foremost whether the research advances as we plan. But it’s in the nature of research, that you cannot linearly plan your progress. To be savy about our decisions in research and persevering in pursuing our goal will be critical. Secondly, we will need additional funding in about 18-24 months, and we are very much aware about what we need to deliver to be desirable to investors. And last but not least: we don’t expect a problem in acquiring customers (rather the opposite, we are already approached by customers who would want to buy and use our product!) but constraints in production facilities.

Therefore, we are already now looking for manufacturing partners that can guarantee production capacity in the near future and support us in the development of the microorganism. Interested manufacturers and industry partners are very welcome to reach out to us!

Thank you very much for this interview, it was a pleasure!

QL CEO Esther Pfister holding an Erlenmeyer beaker with 1 Mio. Nanolitre Reactors – the key to speeding up their research “one million time”.

Ok, interesting, but how does this work with the Nanoliter Reactors?

Our superior research process uses two expensive pieces of technical equipment: an Encapsulator and a COPAS (Complex Object and Particle Analyzer and Sorter). When we have our samples of microorganisms we want to analyze, we first use the Encapsulator to make beads in a way that exactly one microorganism lives in each bead. These little beads are the Nanoliter Reactors. Like a tiny little Bioreactor for one single microorganism. The microorganism grows inside this bead and can then be analyzed with the COPAS: This machine linearizes the one million samples and analyzes and sorts them. After this analysis, we can tell exactly which one microorganism out of the one million sample is the best performing, and we can pick out and continue our research with it.

By the way: The way the microorganism grows in our nanoliter reactor is much closer to the conditions in a commercial bioreactor than the cultivation in well plates. Therefore, the results of our lab research will be applicable more directly to large scale production conditions.

How did the idea to found QL AG come about?

Well, that’s a little bit of a funny story because QL was founded by some Ex-McKinsey people (including me!)  and their friends who have read the Report on Protein Transformation by Blue Horizon and BCG. I think there is always an eternal competition between those two top consulting firms, but nevertheless: the McKinsey people believe in the huge opportunity that lies in alternative proteins and together with the excellent biotechnologists as part of the founders team it was quickly clear that we would go for that opportunity!

So, one could almost say, that QL is a ‘Blue Horizon inspired startup’! Thanks for this!

What do you see as the biggest challenge for your future success and what kind of partners do you need to overcome this challenge?

We have probably similar challenges as other startups in this field, which is first and foremost whether the research advances as we plan. But it’s in the nature of research, that you cannot linearly plan your progress. To be savy about our decisions in research and persevering in pursuing our goal will be critical. Secondly, we will need additional funding in about 18-24 months, and we are very much aware about what we need to deliver to be desirable to investors. And last but not least: we don’t expect a problem in acquiring customers (rather the opposite, we are already approached by customers who would want to buy and use our product!) but constraints in production facilities.

Therefore, we are already now looking for manufacturing partners that can guarantee production capacity in the near future and support us in the development of the microorganism. Interested manufacturers and industry partners are very welcome to reach out to us!

Thank you very much for this interview, it was a pleasure!